Do Busy People Really Get More Done?

by Nancy Ordman

Conventional wisdom holds that the way to get something done is to give the job to a busy person.  The rationale, presumably, is that busy people are experts at organizing their time and following through on commitments. New research from Washington University in St. Louis calls at least part of this explanation into question.

“The big picture is, setting all these deadlines seems like a good idea. But too many deadlines make you use your time less efficiently,” said Stephen Nowlis, the August A. Busch Jr. Distinguished Professor of Marketing at WUSL’s Olin Business School and co-author of a study on the effects of boundaries — like upcoming meetings, appointments and other tasks that delimit free time. People tend to underestimate the amount of time available before the boundary.

In a series of more than eight tests conducted over two years, Nowlis and co-authors Gabriela N. Tonietto of Rutgers and Selin A. Malkoc of Ohio State investigated how study subjects used scheduled and unscheduled chunks of time. The researchers posited upcoming boundaries with varying amounts of time between the current time and the boundary and the firmness of the boundary — whether a test subject had “hard stop” imposed by an appointment or had more control over the stop time for a task.

One test, conducted using the Amazon Mechanical Turk survey platform, asked 200 participants to choose between tackling a 30-minute chore that would pay them $2.50 or a 45-minute chore paying $5.00. Half of the participants did not face a deadline; the other half had one hour before an appointment to take on the chore. Clearly, the 45-minute payoff offers more money per minute worked: 11 cents versus about 8 cents per minute for the 30-minute chore. Participants with the appointment looming believed they had an average of almost eight minutes less time available than the group with no deadlines.

Other tests repeated the same pattern: participants with no fixed deadlines accomplished more work or were more willing to take on a longer task than those with a deadline.

Nowlis suggests using scheduling to handle a number of shorter tasks and leaving unscheduled chunks of time for work that takes longer — report-writing and research, for example.